Christmases Past: the Eighteenth Century

Fans of the eighteenth century who are curious about Christmas in the American colonies have a number of excellent resources: colonial-era historic sites have dug into records and primary sources to try and find a historical way to interpret Christmas. I’m briefly going to try and describe what Christmas was (and wasn’t) in the 18th century, but if you’re really interested I highly recommend the research available on the web from Colonial Williamsburg. Emma L. Powers’ article Tis the Season is an excellent overview, and there’s a slew of articles on Christmas in Williamsburg – I think my favorite thing about the latter is how all of the decorating articles basically say “the wreaths you see at CW are totally not historical.”

It’s true. The fruit-decked wreaths they put up in Williamsburg are a 20th century invention. Outdoor decorations of the 18th century were probably limited to a bit of greenery. there was not an emphasis on decorations. In Massachusetts area, Christmas was still frowned on. In Virginia and other southern states, it was party time for a fair portion of the population. Some of the various Christian sects, Presbyterians for example, did not mark Christmas with any celebration, and of course the small scattered Jewish populations wouldn’t. The dominant religion was Anglicanism, which does observe Christmas with a special service, and in this time it was one of the few opportunities to take Communion.

The celebration of the season was very much what you find in the Dickens quote I posted a few days ago: dancing, feasting, parties, visiting friends and family. Essentially, the things I love about Christmas now. Goodwill towards all expressed in fun and games and laughter. For me the most surprising thing about the 18th century Christmas was that people didn’t give a lot of gifts, and most gifts were food. Apparently there’s a good historical foundation for the exchange of goodies from Harry & David between my parents and their friends, and my grandfather sending us citrus fruit.

All in all, I think that most of us today could enjoy an 18th century Christmas, at least for a few hours.